Page last updated at 09:14 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Auschwitz hero Denis Avey in line for Israeli honour

Children in Auschwitz
More than a million people died in Auschwitz

By Rob Broomby
BBC News

A former British prisoner of war who helped a Jewish inmate survive Auschwitz is being considered for a major honour, the BBC has learned.

Denis Avey, 91, who lives in Derbyshire, helped save Ernst Lobethall, a German Jew from Breslau.

He is being considered for the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

The story emerged following a recent BBC investigation.

Mr Avey said it would be "marvellous" if he were chosen for the title, which is awarded to those who helped save Jewish people.

It is an accolade previously awarded to the likes of Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who is thought to have saved more than a thousand Jews from the Holocaust and whose story was immortalised in the Hollywood film Schindler's List.

He could just as well have said 'I am a prisoner of war, I don't know when I will see my family, I am in no position to help anyone else'
Irena Steinfeldt, Yad Vashem

Some 22,000 individuals, mostly from central and eastern Europe, have received the treasured title so far, but if he is successful Mr Avey will become only the 15th British citizen to be honoured in Jerusalem's Garden of the Righteous.

The standard is high, the conditions are rigorous and their research is only now beginning. In the end a commission headed by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel has to make the decision.

The authorities at Yad Vashem took up the case after BBC viewers and listeners contacted them directly on hearing his moving story.

War stories

Mr Avey described the news that he was being considered for the award as "fantastic".

He was no ordinary British soldier and he became an extraordinary prisoner of war. He had fought with special forces against General Rommel's Africa Korps behind enemy lines in the desert.

He was wounded and captured by the Germans, and the ship transporting to him to captivity was sunk. He escaped into the sea and survived the explosion of depth charges close by.

Ernst Lobethall
Ernst Lobethall moved to the US after the end of World War II

After 20 hours in the water he made it to land in southern Greece. He then hiked the length of the Peloponnese before being recaptured and sent to Germany as a POW.

After two spells in a punishment camp and being sent to work down a mine, he was transported to a compound for British prisoners connected to a sprawling concentration camp. Its name - then unremarkable - was Auschwitz.

There the "fiery" soldier with red hair and a Van Dyck beard saw at first hand the suffering of the Jewish victims of Hitler's slave labour programmes.

Although in the British camp they enjoyed better conditions, by day they worked alongside the Jewish prisoners.

Daring plan

He told the BBC how he had hatched an audacious plan to swap clothes with a Jewish inmate to smuggle himself into their sector of the camp.

He fully intended to get as far as Birkenau, where the gas chambers and crematoria were constantly in operation, belching acrid fumes.

He only made it as far as Auschwitz III, where he spent the night on two occasions. Detection, he said, would have meant death.

Denis Avey: "They knew they'd only last five months"

"They'd have shot me out of hand", he said. "I took a hell of a chance."

He was determined to bear witness with the intention of telling the world after the war. He recalled the camp as being "evil" like "Hell on earth".

But it is for his part in helping Mr Lobethall, later Ernie Lobet, that he could yet be honoured. Through letters to his mother, Mr Avey succeeded in contacting Ernst's sister Susana, who had escaped to England before the war.

He arranged for cigarettes - as valuable as gold in the camps - to be sent to him, which he then smuggled in to Ernst in the Jewish camp.

Video testimony

But he had always assumed that his erstwhile friend had died in the icy death march when the camps were cleared by the SS as the Russians advanced.

Ernst Lobethall and his sisterSusana
Mr Lobethall, later Ernie Lobet, lived a 'long and happy' life in America

Only after the BBC investigation did Mr Avey learn that Mr Lobethall had survived and that it was his smuggled cigarettes that had given him his chance.

The evidence corroborating Mr Avey's story appeared in a video interview that Mr Lobethall had given to the Shoah Foundation, which gathers the testimonies of the camp survivors. He had recorded it towards the end of his life in 1995.

In it he described the soldier he knew only as "Ginger" who smuggled cigarettes, chocolate and even a letter from his sister in England into the Jewish camp for him. He said it was like being given the "Rockefeller Centre".

Trading the cigarettes for favours, Mr Lobethall had heavy soles put on his boots, and that saved his life during the death march in 1945 when tens of thousands had died. Anyone who stumbled had been shot.

"They fell like flies," he recalled in the video.

A special commission in Jerusalem will determine on the basis of the evidence whether Mr Avey receives the honour and becomes one of the "righteous".

'Very high honour'

Successful or not, his remarkable story is now getting the attention it deserves.

"This title is really a very high honour," says Irena Steinfeldt of Yad Vashem. "Apparently this story touched people.

"Denis Avey never knew this (Mr) Lobethall. He could just as well have said 'I am a prisoner of war, I don't know when I will see my family, I am in no position to help anyone else.'.

"It is a noble and extraordinary act."

After the war Mr Lobethall made it to the United States, and enjoyed a successful and prosperous life.

And despite being drafted into the Korean War, he remained a man of "unfailing good cheer" until the end of his days, according to a life-long friend who also heard the original broadcast and contacted the BBC.

He died in 2002 and never found out the real name of the soldier he called "Ginger" whose buccaneering spirit gave him a chance to live.

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